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An Excellent Article on Feedback & Instructional Leadership

I recently came across this article from Dr. Shira Leibowitz, a colleague from New York, and thought it was a must-read for all principals.

It’s titled “7 Steps To Effective Feedback,” and while you might think it’s a quick list of tips, it’s really an in-depth plan for instructional leadership and supporting staff growth, based on Dr. Leibowitz’ extensive reading, professional development, and experience as a principal.

An excerpt:

Principals, at least as I was trained years ago, have been viewed primarily as evaluators, giving “expert” advice and assessment, rather than sharing nonjudgmental observations with teachers for the purpose of professional learning and growth.

Despite the inherent challenges, I have come to recognize that giving feedback effectively to teachers can be among the most significant contributions a principal can make to improving the quality of learning in our schools.

Read the full article at TeacherCast. You’ll spend 5 minutes reading and 10 minutes thinking about your work as an instructional leader.

Providing Feedback to Master Teachers

Teachers at more advanced levels of proficiency are generally very proud of their practice, and may have been asked to serve as a mentor for student teachers or interns. With such experience, it’s easy to perceive feedback as disrespectful if it’s not delivered carefully.

On a short walkthrough, it’s not uncommon for a principal to leave feedback that fails to take into account the instruction that took place before or after the observation, and it’s easy to come to snap judgments in order to find something to write down.

One way to avoid this trap is to provide low-inference feedback – to describe what is taking place without drawing conclusions about it, then to ask open-ended questions to prompt further thinking. For example, if you observe that students are completing worksheets, and it seems to you that the task is not very engaging or rigorous, you might provide provide feedback as follows:

Students are working independently on practice sheets, while teacher circulates to answer questions and check for understanding.
Questions for reflection: In addition to personal effort, what factors determine the level of benefit students derive from written work?

This question focuses the teacher’s attention on the task’s level of cognitive demand, but without a judgment such as “This doesn’t seem very rigorous.”

Feedback for Performance: The “Next Steps” List

Principals have an obligation to provide instructional leadership for every faculty member, not just those who are struggling. But how do you make an intentional, systematic effort to provide feedback to every teacher, including those who are excellent?

Photo from Flickr user thelastminuteIt can be challenging to provide constructive feedback to your best teachers. What do you say to help someone improve their practice, when it’s already at a superior level?

The answer to this question may not be immediately obvious, so one way to address this instructional leadership challenge is to keep a “next steps” list of your staff. List all of your staff members, and keep notes on each person’s previous work and strengths, and note what the next level of work is.

For example:
Abrams – presented at math conference; working on motivating students who aren’t completing homework.
Baker – recently formed new reading groups; working with one group on summarizing expository text.
Childress – new behavior plan for JT; trying to reduce disruptions to rest of the class.
Davidson – Implemented literacy centers last month; trying to build students’ independence.

Recordkeeping is essential. Just as teachers keep anecdotal and formal notes, it’s helpful to physically keep a “next steps” list. A simple two-column sheet, with names in the left column and blank space in the right, should work.

Feedback for Performance: Low-Hanging Fruit

When giving feedback to improve the performance of those you supervise, where do you start?

If something is painfully wrong, it’s obvious where to focus your attention. If you observe practices that are harmful to students, unethical, unprofessional, or unsafe, it’s easy to know what to address first.

Fruit, by Flickr user lindsayshaverMost of the time, though, we need to provide feedback that isn’t so obvious. When someone is generally doing a good job, how do we decide what to mention, knowing that we have a limited bandwidth for giving constructive feedback?

In this situation, the critical question is “What changes will lead to the largest gains in performance?” More to the point in classroom settings, “What changes in practice will have the greatest benefits for student learning?”

These questions stand in contrast to the typical starting point for feedback, which is the “I noticed…have you thought about…?” line of coaching. Too often, what we notice from a lesson observation is based on a personal interest or pet issue, not the opportunity for improved results.

For example, if I know from informal observations that a teacher’s greatest challenge is adequately preparing for math instruction, I should not allow myself to be distracted by minor areas for improvement that I identify during a formal observation. While it’s important to cite specific evidence when providing feedback, leaders must be purposeful in collecting evidence that will support feedback in the areas of greatest need.

What is the low-hanging fruit for each person you supervise? What feedback would improve their performance the most? Think about it as you prepare for your next observation or discussion.

Feedback for Performance

If we want to get better results, we can change the working conditions, the inputs, or the actions we take to do the work. As individuals, we often don’t have much control over the inputs or conditions of our work, so the primary point of leverage for improvement is the set of actions we take on the job.

In order to do our work better, we need to get a perspective from someone else on how we’re doing, and how we might do better in the future. This, at the most basic level, is what feedback is.

Golf Swing by chuchyeager For an expert supervising a novice, the process of giving feedback is straightforward – observe, describe (with reference to a standard for excellence), celebrate successes, and make suggestions for improvement.

But for principals supervising more experienced staff, the challenges vary. Providing constructive (and not just complimentary) feedback to master teachers is no easy task. Another challenge comes when attempting to provoke thinking to challenge long-established habits or practices.

What challenges do you encounter in giving (or receiving) feedback? What have you found to be effective in improving performance in your organization?